The relationship between light, essence, Presence and knowledge in the philosophy of illumination

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A. vision
Suhrawardi formulates a theory of vision based on his illuminationist ideas. According to him, knowledge by presence, the epistemological basis of ishraqi of the school, provides a framework which explains vision, in both its physical and its intellectual sense. Suhrawardi argues that “vision” (mushahadah) can only take place in accordance with the principles of illumination He first refutes the existing theories of how vision occurs and then offers his own view.

B. Theories of vision
According to the first theory, a ray of light comes from the object of perception and in meeting the eye leaves an impression which we call the act of seeing. The second theory takes the opposite angle by saying that a ray of light emanates from the eye and meets the object and that constitutes the very act of seeing. Suhrawardi rejects both views and offers his own theory which is as follows:

Once you see that sight is not the correspondence of the observed in the eves and is not the exiting of a ray from the eye, then except for the encounter of the lit object with the healthy eye, it is not anything else….And the result of this encounter in regard to sight is due to the absence of the veil between that which sees and that which is seen.

Suhrawardi’s argument can be better formulated as follows: The existence(wujud) of an existent object has a presence that the “rational self” (al-nafs al-natiqah) comes to realize once it is within the domain of its presence. Therefore, in seeing something, it is not the case that the subject sees the object but that it is the presence of the self that comprehends the presence of the object once it is in its domain. In order for this interaction to take place, there has to be the absence of a veil (hijab) between the knower and the known. Since the subject, being the self (which for Suhrawardi is light), comes into contact with the object that is also illuminated, then the self “witnesses” (shahd) the object. To clarify the issue one can give the example of a room with several people in it. however, because the room is dark they cannot see each other. It is only after the light is turned on that they are able to see one another.

Since self for Suhrawardi is light and observation as such requires the presence of light, then in a statement such as “I know P,” “I” as the knower and “P” as the object of knowledge both depend on light as the necessary condition for the “I” to know “P”.

C. vision and Intellection
In conjunction with the explanation concerning the very act of seeing, something has to be said about vision in its intellectual context. For Suhrawardi, intellection is a form of vision (mushahdah) through which one sees the archetypes in the imaginal world. In fact, to think in the authentic sense is to think of the archetypes which do not lend themselves to speculation but whose reality can be “seen” through intellection. This is an extremely profound point which Suhrawardi raises since the very act of intellection necessitates the existence of an intellectual world whose residences are archetypes. It is noteworthy that Suhrawardi distinguishes between these archetypes and Plato’s archetypes and states:

These suspending forms are not like Plato’s in that Plato’s forms are fixed luminaries in the luminous intellectual world ….but these archetypes are suspending and do not have a place so it is allowed for them to become the manifestations of this world.

As we discussed, objects of the intellectual world had themselves been “seen” with the eyes of the universal intellect (aql- i kulli) a vision that is only possible for the “brethren of purity”. This is equivalent to “presence,” a form of being an object or seeing of an object. This presence or mode of knowledge which belongs to intellectual elite is only attained after one has come to know one’s self. This point will be further elaborated upon.

D. Equality Existence, presence, and Revealedness
Since Suhrawardi takes the concepts of the self, light, and consciousness to be equivalent, it follows that when the self is more illuminated, the domain of its presence increases. As such, when the ontological distance of a being to the light of light decreases, the power of one’s presence increases and so does the domain of one’s knowledge. He who knows more is therefore ontologically speaking closer to God and therefore “is-more.” This “is –ness” or presence is not only a status which is to be gained through the pursuance of intellectual wisdom but also requires practicing the Sufi path.

The following formula demonstrates Suhrawardi’s view of the relationship between knowledge and presence: Existence (wujud) =Presence (hudur)= “revealedness”(zuhur) To argue for position, Suhrawardi first demonstrates that “I” is nothing but pure light in its ontological sense. He then use this conclusion in order to formulate his theory of knowledge by presence. In a section entitled “He Who Perceives His Essence as Being Incorporeal Light,” Suhrawardi states:

Everyone who has an essence is not ignorant of it, nor is he in the dark as to the appearance of his essence to him. And it is not a dark corporeality (ghasiq) in others since luminous corporeality also is not a light in its essence, let alone darkness. So, he is pure incorporeal light which has no spatial location.

E. self, light and knowledge of the self
By “light” Suhrawardi means that phenomenon of which nothing more apparent can be conceived. Defining the self in terms of light and light in terms of apparentness allows Suhrawardi to draw the following conclusion: The self is a simple, single and indivisible entity since if this were not the case, it would have to be defined in terms of its components. That implies the components would have to be more axiomatic than the self, which is contrary to our definition of the self.

Suhrawardi’s argument can be demonstrated as follows:
1. Knowledge of the self is the same as the very reality of the self.
2. The reality of the self is light
3. Knowledge of the self is light.
4. Light can be understood only by being in its presence.
5. Knowledge of the self can only be understood by its very presence.

Although Suhrawardi’ does not present his argument systematically and often does not make clear the relationship that exists between light, self, presence and knowledge, his arguments can be constructed in a number of ways. For example, on the basis of the following statement we can offer a different version of the argument He who can understand his own nature will be incorporeal light.

Based on our foregoing discussion, it follows that:
1. God is light.
2. “I-ness” is light.
3. “I-ness” is God.
4. He who know himself, know God.

K. God, as the focal point of epistemology
God or the light of lights, omnipresent and omniscient, makes seeing possible by virtue of being “the light of heavens and earth.” As the Quran says, In the external and physical sense, the light of lights provides the necessary condition for observation whereas in the case of inner senses omniscience and omnipresence stand in direct relationship with one another.

The knowledge crucial to the attainment of the particular mode of being which Suhrawardi refers to as presence is specifically self knowledge. Knowledge of the self, as the divine substance bestowed upon us, is fundamentally Knowledge of the Divine. God therefore becomes the focal point where the concepts of self, light, presence and Knowledge come together into a unified whole. It is in lieu of such a view that Suhrawardi offers his epistemology both in its practical domain and its purely philosophical and intellectual sense. Knowledge of the self can be attained through the Sufi path which we have described in the previous chapter. Knowledge of the self and how it is that the self knows itself is the subjects of Suhrawardi’s philosophical epistemology to which we now turn.


suhrawardi and illumination school


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